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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 2, 2011

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Wicked Bugs and The Movie Business

I don't actually like insects. I know that this will surprise you, because most people feel a deep affinity with the natural world, and my aversion to having beasts with more than four limbs come into physical contact with my body makes me eccentric, I'm sure.

Then again, Raid, Black Flag, Off!, and flyswatters seem to be available in every store, so perhaps my attitude toward tiny beasts is not all that unusual.

I remember when the Raid No-Pest Strip first appeared. Boy do those suckers work. We used them for years before warning labels started telling us not to put them where food is prepared.

Since flies tend to head straight for the kitchen, I wondered what the No-Pest Strip was for, if it couldn't be used in the kitchen. I also wondered just how much poison we had taken into our bodies.

But we did have those wonderful fly-free years.

When I (stupidly) left bird seed in a bag on a shelf in the garage a few years ago, and we got a huge infestation of mealworms and moths, I tried moth lures and they worked -- in the sense that the sticky surfaces were coated with moth bodies.

But they didn't work in the sense of eliminating the moth problem. That took a No-Pest Strip right where the birdseed had once been. (Now we keep all birdseed in plastic bins where rodents can't gnaw them open, letting in moths to lay their nasty little non-caviar eggs.)

Then there were the whiteflies. I didn't know what they were. I just knew they were tiny flies, white in color, swarming all around various plants on my patio, and their larvae covered the leaves and blossoms and fruit.

After a few years, I discovered that the name of these white flies was "whiteflies." Just like the time when I was living in Brazil and needed to buy paper clips. I couldn't find the Portuguese word for paper clips in any dictionary. I finally drew a picture of a paper clip for a clerk in an office supply store.

"Oh," he said. "Cleep."

Why hadn't I thought of just pronouncing "clip" with a Portuguese accent? No, I had to try to invent words, like "apertador de papeis," which got me a stapler.

So if there are little flies infesting my garden, and they are white, why didn't I think of calling them "whiteflies"? I'm still new at this language thing, I guess.

I sprayed every kind of organic insecticide and repellent. The whiteflies seemed to regard them as "lunch." Oh, I admit, they held very still for a while. But the next day they were back again.

I tried spraying every day. After a week, they were still back again the next day.

So I gave up on the organic bug killers and went for the savage, environment-wrecking stuff. Now, that stuff worked. Now the whiteflies didn't come back until about a week had passed.

You know what finally worked? Winter. And completely changing out the soil in the planters the next spring.

This year, when the whiteflies showed up (in a different set of planters in a completely different part of the yard), I acted swiftly. I saw in the Gardener's Supply Company catalog an item called "Beneficial Bugs."

What do you get for your money? A praying mantis egg sac, good for about two hundred baby praying mantises, when they hatch ($17.50); or a mesh bag filled with 1500 adult ladybugs (I didn't count them, but there were a whole bunch, for $16.95).

You are supposed to attach the praying mantis egg case to a stem or leaf in a sheltered, hidden place, and wait for warm weather to get them to hatch. No instructions on how to attach the sac, so I used velcro ribbon designed for tying plants to posts. I'm still waiting for them to hatch, but it's only been a week.

The ladybugs, though -- they were wide awake and full-sized. Again, no instructions on how to open the mesh bag, only a suggestion that I release the ladybugs near water-soaked raisins and damp leaves, so they could get a nice meal and a drink of water after their passage through the U.S. mail.

So, raisins in place, and water beads all over the patch of greenery, I cut open the bag.

Instantly, as soon as I cut the first inch, I had ladybugs all over my hands.

I don't blame them. If I had been confined to a mesh bag inside a dark box for a journey of several hundred miles, I'd rush outside and cling to the nearest object as quickly as I could.

But here's the thing -- my skin doesn't know the difference between nasty scorpions and cheery little ladybugs. All my skin knew was that multi-legged organisms were crawling all over me.

So I did the well-known "There Are Insects On Me" dance (I'm very good at it; people have been known to applaud) and backed away.

Then I realized that my first one-inch incision had only released the first few hundred. The other ladybugs didn't know about the incision in the bag. Apparently in the world of ladybugs, there is no spreading of helpful hints. It's every ladybug for herself.

So back I went, with my scissors and my squinched-up face. The moment I touched the bag I was covered in ladybugs again, but I boldly continued to cut the mesh until the bag was in ribbons. Then I did the dance again, shivered, made a whimpering sound, and washed my hands and arms for about an hour.

Within half an hour the ladybugs were all gone. I don't know where they went. Maybe they're spread throughout my yard, happily eating whitefly larvae. The whiteflies are gone, but I had sprayed some organic bug killer before ordering the ladybugs, so I'm not sure what stopped the infestation.

For all I know, all my investment in ladybugs did was just a complicated way of buying lunch for all the insect-eating birds in the neighborhood. Insectivorous birds probably don't know which insects are on my team and should be left alone.

Then there were the swarms of long-winged flies -- probably a mating population of ants or termites -- that suddenly appeared in our yard one day. I was planting a few berry bushes (not for us -- I'm trying to attract fruit-eating birds to our yard) when all of a sudden these gross-looking flies started landing on me.

They didn't bite. They didn't really even crawl around. They just landed and apparently started taking a nap. But they especially liked landing around my mouth, nose, and eyes, and I especially did not like them landing there, so I did a variation on the dance.

We called our regular exterminator and he came out the next day. But by then, unbeknownst to us, these insects had apparently had a day of wild, frantic mating and then died. They were gone. Not one remained to show him. I felt so smart.

As far as I know, insects don't hate humans. Unlike squirrels, chipmunks, and birds, which all scoot away when I come near, insects don't mind my being there. In fact, they come to greet me.

Insects (and arachnids, and slugs and worms) don't seem particularly bothered by the human occupation of this world. I'm not sure insects regard us as anything but food providers.

And yet many of us live in dread of them. There are people with real phobias. I once spent a lot of time with a toddler who went into a screaming fit at the sight of an insect flying outside the car. If the bug ever touched her, it would take hours to calm her down.

But I also knew a kid who caught bees with his hands and was amused at the stings. (Within a few years, sensitized to bee stings, he began to go into anaphylactic shock when stung, so he switched to a different recreational activity.)

Yet, much as we might abhor bugs, they are endlessly fascinating, and for that reason I must recommend to you a book called Wicked Bugs: the Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects, by Amy Stewart.

It's a small book, but it's packed with black-and-white drawings and very detailed accounts of tiny beasts that range from nuisances to assassins.

While Stewart reports many ancient warnings and old wives' tales -- Pliny the Elder, in 77 a.d., reported that the sting of scorpions was "invariably fatal to virgins, and nearly always so to matrons" -- she is very careful to tell us which creatures really are dangerous.

Some of these beasts will give you nightmares. The Asian Giant Hornet, for instance (p. 9), known locally as "yak-killer," can kill you. Its sting contains a massive concentration of the same stuff that makes ordinary wasp and hornet stings so painful, but it also contains the deadly neurotoxin called mandaratoxin.

To add insult to injury, the hornet also leaves behind pheromones that attract its compadres to the site, leading to a strong possibility of getting stung by many fully-charged hornets. About forty people die from its sting each year.

I've been to Japan, where it is native, and I wasn't stung. But if I'd known about this beast, I might not have gone. This may seem cowardly to you, but did I ever claim to be brave about bugs? I think not.

Then there's the account of the Rocky Mountain Locust, which periodically erupted in vast swarms like dust storms that devastated every living plant for hundreds of miles.

Nobody could figure out where these locusts went between massive infestations. Until a Russian entomologist named Boris Uvarov discovered, in the 1920s, that these voracious locusts were actually a species of ordinary-looking grasshoppers.

But when the population of these grasshoppers got too crowded, the females started laying a different kind of egg. The insects that hatched had longer wings and liked to live closer together. They moved in dense packs, and the eggs they laid were capable of longer dormancy in drier conditions.

It was the Incredible Hulk of bugs. When it got crowded, it transformed into a monster. And when these beasts appear, it's no surprise that they seem to be a divine plague -- nobody's ever seen these insects before. Who could guess they were actually spawned by perfectly ordinary grasshoppers?

But you'll notice that I've been speaking of them in the past tense. That's because the sheer process of farming destroyed the native habitat of this particular species, and "Melanoplus spretus now appears to be entirely extinct" (p. 208).

Yes, I suppose this is an ecological tragedy. But species go extinct all the time in the ordinary course of nature, and I personally prefer living in a world where an entire year's crop doesn't get wiped out just because some grasshoppers felt the need for more lebensraum.

Spiders, weevils, bedbugs; stingers and bloodsuckers; centipedes and coddling moths; you can learn about all of them in this useful, horrifying reference book.

And who can fail to appreciate the rating system for stings on pages 137 and 138? For instance, the sting of the sweat bee is a 1.0, described as "light, ephemeral, almost fruity. A tiny spark has singed a single hair on your arm."

A 2.0 -- the sting of the bald-faced hornet -- is "rich, hearty, slightly crunchy. Similar to getting your hand mashed in a revolving door."

I don't understand the menu-like descriptions -- how can a sting by "fruity" or "crunchy"?

But I take the ratings seriously all the same. A yellowjacket sting is described as "hot and smoky, almost irreverent. Imagine W.C. fields extinguishing a cigar on your tongue."

In this case, I wonder if knowing it was a celebrity torturing you would somehow ameliorate the pain. But it doesn't compare to the 3.0 sting of the red harvester ant, which is "bold and unrelenting. Somebody is using a drill to excavate your ingrown toenail."

Or the 4.0+ bullet ant, whose sting is "pure, intense, brilliant pain. Like fire-walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch rusty nail in your heel."

And you wonder why I have little tubs of ant bait all over my yard.

*

Are you planning on making a movie? I highly recommend that you read Kelly Charles Crabb's book The Movie Business: The Definitive Guide to the Legal and Financial Secrets of Getting Your Movie Made.

Crabb is a lawyer. He knows every step of the legal side of movie-making. He's an engaging writer, and he makes this stuff as interesting as it can possibly be. Which is to say -- it's mind-numbing.

But that's the point. There are so many places where you can screw up and lose everything -- not because your movie is bad or underfunded, but because you didn't sew up the rights properly, or some other legal mistake -- that by the time you're done with this book, you will probably have decided that you are never, never going to make a movie. Ever.

This is a good thing. Movies should only be made by people with excellent lawyers -- or by talented morons who shoot something brilliant, and then leave it lying around for somebody else to steal it.

This is not bedtime reading, unless you like falling asleep with a book on your face. But I can assure you of this: I have one of the best entertainment lawyers alive, which is the only reason I still have some measure of influence on the making of the Ender's Game movie.

Without him, there would already have been a movie by that name, and it would have been the stupidest piece of junk ever on a screen.

In my twenty-five years of dealing with Hollywood, I have faced many of the issues Crabb deals with in this book, and wherever I know what he's talking about, he is absolutely correct and crystal clear. If you think you want to make a movie, own this book, and read it as carefully as if you were going to have to pass a test on it or lose everything you own.

Because that's exactly what's likely to happen if you don't.

And the most important piece of advice he gives -- over and over -- is that even with this book in hand, get a lawyer. And not just any lawyer -- get one who specializes in entertainment law.

Which means it probably won't be a lawyer who hung out his shingle in your hometown, unless your hometown is within easy driving distance of the Hollywood sign.


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